Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Premonitions of Trump's America

From Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World:
I have a foreboding of an American in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. [...] The plain lesson is that study and learning -- not just of science, but of anything -- are avoidable, even undesirable.

* Note that what I see prophesied in this excerpt is not the rise of Trump, but the emergence of an American culture in which someone like Trump is able to move unimpeded.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

No, leftist regression is not killing the atheist movement

I’m a member of several secular mailing lists, for activists or organizers – in-house and intra-mural conversations, mostly. Shop talk. Well, this morning a message came through on a mailing list for humanist organizers. This is what the submitter sent in:
Saw an interesting post from David Smalley of Dogma Debate about whether the regressive left is killing the atheist movement. What do you think? http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dogmadebate/2017/06/reasonably-controversial-regressive-left-killing-atheist-movement/

This question, and the article it links to, got under my skin for some reason. Maybe for a bunch of reasons. By way of response, I replied with what turned into an op-ed column calling out the secular community at large for their (our!) lack of demands when it comes to our leadership. Here’s what I wrote. Your comments are welcome.

Of the several dozen factors I would list as inhibiting or impeding the progress of secular activism, I would NOT include leftist repression among them. 

Over the past few months (since Trump's election boosted my motivation, actually), I've been checking in with a network of professional organizational consultants with relative regularity -- folks that work with international nonprofits, campaigns, corporations, and so on. I'm very fortunate in not having to pay their usual billable rate, which is somewhere between painful and audacious. Good for them, I suppose.

What we talk about is the structure and activity of the secular movement -- its personalities, its assets, its organizations, its opportunities and its failings. Take this with a grain of salt, but the overall view that I've taken away from these consultations is that "our" greatest hindrance is our lack of focused, outcome-oriented leadership. We are largely headed up by non-professionals, whether that term refers to their employment history and expertise or to their temperament. 

We have (in potentia) the money, resources, human capital, and skills to achieve gains. We have gains TO achieve -- socially laudable, economically relevant, politically needful activism to pursue, and noble (if I may use that word without seeming like overly pious) goals to fight for. We have work to do and the means to do it. But if the review I've been doing of our activity over the past two decades has shown anything, it is that our work is time and again disrupted and destroyed by organizational infighting; operational incompetence; and personality-driven failure. 

If you asked me why the "atheist movement" (loaded term) is "failing" (leading term), I'd tell you it has a lot more to do with the self-serving, short-sighted, self-aggrandizing and frankly destructive personalities that our complex community has not yet figured out how to neutralize, than it does with leftist repression.

(The continued failure of secular leadership in the US to take responsibility for the terrible demographics of the movement, in all its manifestations -- talking heads, org officers, media representation, conference attendance, and so on -- is I think concomitant to larger leadership problem. The demographic problem and the leadership problem are to each other both cause and result.)

If secularism were half as rational as we like to think we are, then a lot of the folks in charge would be shown the door in quick fashion, making room for folks who are ready and equipped to deliver in terms of revenue, media activism, legislative influence, membership growth, local chapter stability, etc, etc. 

If I may say so without seeming merely to be "stirring up shit" -- some of those people who should be shown the door are on this mailing list.

More than once, a person I look up to in the secular social movement has drawn a comparison between secularism and waves of enfranchisement. You had women's rights; civil rights; equal rights; and now, perhaps, we could see ourselves as part of a fourth wave. There are a few problems with this comparison, but in spirit, it's an exciting metaphor. The reason I can't embrace it is because I'm embarrassed, on my own behalf and on the behalf of anyone who has any role in organized secularism over the past quarter century, at how badly we've failed at identifying and empowering the kind of astute and honorable leadership that those previous movements depended on. 

I don't mean that our lack of heroically perfect leadership is what's holding us back. I mean that we're entirely too tolerant of entirely too much imperfection. We can do better, as secularists and rationalists and humanists, and we should, and we need to. The US needs every one of its component communities to get their act together; all hands are needed to create, strengthen and defend institutions, memes and attitudes which are up to the task of neutralizing chaotic nationalism, xenophobia of all sorts, nativism and corporatism. 

I write this reply, without wishing to seem to devalue the work and contributions of secular leaders who ARE doing a bang-up job.

I fear I've replied to your question with a bit of grandstanding. I've deliberately not said much about Smalley's article, or about his other statements along these lines in social media. I find it a shallow and unpersuasive position, and with that, enough said. 

All best,

Zachary Bos

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Matron in the train station

Saw an older woman handing out Watchtower tracts at the T this morning. I bet that work gives her a sense of purpose, and of dignity through purpose. And it's nice to know that she has a reason to be out of the house. Still, I'd much rather see her stumping for an ideology that didn't reject science, reject modernity, and demand impossible beliefs from the people interested in belonging to that community.

What kind of an ideology might that be? Well, it'd have to be a big one, else it wouldn't attract commitment and motivate behavior. But so many big ideas are also dangerous ideas. Radical fellowship opens the door to disfellowshipping; community belonging opens the door to shunning; values-based leadership opens the door to coercion, authoritarianism, and abuse.

Some days I'm such an optimist that I feel it wouldn't be such a difficult thing to articulate such an ideology, and stitch up a workable community structure around it, and release it into the wild. Then I think about the observable scarcity of such communities where benign values-in-action have resulted in flourishing and stable social situations, and I tuck my optimism back in my pocket and recommit to a more humble set of ambitions.

"It's easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled," Mark Twain wrote. (Or no, he didn't, but I will tell you that he didn't and you won't believe me.)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Orwell on socialist sex maniacs

Ah, YouTube. This morning it brought me to an unaired clip from the British panel show QI, in which the inestimable and inimitable Stephen Fry quotes from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1936):
"'Socialism draws towards it with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England.' [Orwell] also talks about 'vegetarians with wilting beards', 'outer suburban creeping Jesus' eager to begin yoga exercises,' and 'that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of progress like bluebottles to a dead cat.'" [transcript]
I wonder what justice there is in Orwell's cranky depiction of figures we probably all recognize through the distortions of his caricature. There is an n-dimension graph whose axes represent openness toward or rejection of different conceptual possibilities -- spirituality, personal perfectability, political perfectability, and so on -- and in this graph space, we should be able to identify the overlapping domains of "socialism", "individualism", "bohemianism", "veganism", and so on. Would the result be a disordered pell-mell without order? Or would some kind of informative structure emerge, to tell us about the people who reject theism but embrace socialism, who embrace fascism but reject spiritualism, and so on? Where will we find the bluebottle types, or the skeptics, or the Eric Blairs? What if these each turn out to be categorical cousins, to no one's greater surprise than their own?